Contamination unlikely to have caused Manchester cancer cases

Independent inquiry finds that illnesses among Rutherford Building staff were probably coincidence. Melanie Newman reports

September 30, 2009

An independent inquiry into the cancer risks posed by radiation contamination at the University of Manchester has concluded that cases of the disease among former workers were probably a coincidence.

David Coggon, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton, carried out the investigation at Manchester’s request.

The university was responding to concerns that three cases of pancreatic cancer and a brain tumour among former occupants of Manchester’s Rutherford Building might be related to contamination by radioactive chemicals and mercury.

Renowned nuclear physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford and his colleagues had used the chemicals during pioneering research on radioactivity at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1999, some of the building’s rooms were found to be contaminated, but staff were not informed until 2001. A 2008 report by Manchester academics officially raised fears about radiation levels in the offices and a possible link with their colleagues’ deaths.

The widow of Hugh Wagner, a psychologist and one of the building’s former occupants, has previously discussed suing the university for negligence. The building was closed in February this year.

But Professor Coggon reports: “An apparent cluster (at least three cases) of pancreatic cancer among past occupants of the Rutherford Building cannot plausibly be explained by contaminant radioactive chemicals, mercury or asbestos, either alone or in combination. By far the most likely explanation for the cluster is that it has occurred by chance coincidence.”

He adds: “Despite some uncertainties about exact levels of contamination in the past, I think we can be pretty confident that any risks to health have been small, and that the cases of cancer that have occurred among former occupants of the Rutherford Building are not a consequence of the contamination.”

Lung cancer would pose the gravest potential health threat to long-term occupants of the building’s most contaminated rooms, the professor said. But he added that even allowing for uncertainties in the assessment of historical levels of exposure to radiation, the risk was expected to be small – similar to that posed by passive smoking.

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